Tuesday, December 30, 2008

End of the Year Book List

The end of the year is always a good time for reflection on movies watched and books read. As I look over the books I managed to finish this year I notice a distressing lack of classic fiction, a lack I hope to remedy in 2009. What fiction I did read was mostly unremarkable. I confess to having read and, dare I admit it, even mildly enjoyed, a couple of high testosterone Vince Flynn thrillers. I also endured Stephen King's logorrheic and highly overrated The Stand. William Young's very popular The Shack was a nice enough story despite its implausibility, and The Fossil Hunters by John Olson was an intermittently entertaining tale of the competition between teams of paleontologists and the dangers inherent in doing field work in hostile countries. That's pretty much the extent of the year's fiction.

There were some other forgettable books which I have duly forgotten, but here are twenty five others (including some of the novels mentioned above) which I've rated on a scale of one to four stars (*poor, **fair, ***good, ****outstanding). A caveat: The rating reflects only my interest in, and enjoyment of, the book and my opinion of its importance. A book on science or philosophy that I rank with 4 stars might seem a complete waste to someone who cares nothing for those subjects:

1. Life's Ultimate Questions, Ronald Nash ***: A good introductory text in philosophy geared to students at a Christian college. Its only drawbacks are Nash's treatment of the early Greeks, which is a bit tedious, and his dismissive treatment of views with which he disagrees.

2. Intelligent Design, Dembski and Ruse ***: Arguments by various scholars pro et contra intelligent design.

3. Theory and Reality, Peter Godfrey-Smith***: A fine survey of the last one hundred years of argument about the nature of science.

4. The Design Matrix - A Consilience of Clues, Mike Gene ****: An explication of the concept of "front-loaded" evolution. In my opinion, Gene has made an important contribution to the debate about intelligent design.

5. Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg ****: Perhaps the most important book I read this year, it makes a compelling case that fascism is a phenomenon of the political left, not, as most people assume, the right.

6. Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne **: Claiborne gets good grades for enthusiasm and for sincerely trying to live up to his understanding of the gospel, but receives low marks for the quality of his reasoning.

7. The Life of the Mind, Clifford Williams ***: This little book would make a nice gift for an academically-oriented student heading off to college.

8. Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright ***: A condensation of his much more voluminous Resurrection of the Son of God.

9. A Primer on Postmodernism, Stanley Grenz ****: An excellent and very readable overview of the major figures and ideas associated with postmodern thought.

10. Moral Choices, Scott Rae ***: A good introductory text on ethics from a Christian perspective.

11. The Case for Civility, Os Guinness **: Os makes a plea for greater civility in our politics while diminishing his case by taking jabs at the Bush administration whenever the opportunity presents itself.

12. Devil's Delusion, David Berlinski ***: An amusing critique of modern anti-theism written by an agnostic mathematician.

13. Fossil Hunters, John Olson **: A sometimes interesting but uneven story of a paleontological hunt for a prehistoric fossil in an Islamic country.

14. The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins **: Perhaps the most overrated book of the decade. Dawkins gives us a polemic against God that seems to attack everything but its intended target.

15. The Reason for God, Tim Keller ***: The pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City seeks to answer questions about Christianity posed by seekers among his congregants.

16. God and Other Minds, Alvin Plantinga ***: In one of the most important and influential books in philosophy in the latter half of the twentieth century, Plantinga shows that we know of God's existence in the same way we know that other minds exist. Not for the beginner.

17. The Nature of True Virtue, Jonathan Edwards **: Edwards brings his logical skills to bear in this 18th century discussion of what it means to be virtuous. The book is written in a dense style that makes it less accessible to modern readers than one might wish.

18. The Shack, William Young ***: Young has written an enormously popular tale of a man who manages to overcome terrible grief through a weekend spent with the Trinity.

19. Last Lecture, Randy Pausch **: A book of advice written by a terminally ill computer prof for his children who will grow up without him. Poignant, wise, and funny.

20. The Stand, Stephen King *: Don't bother.

21. Getting it Right, William F. Buckley ***: WFB puts the internecine struggles of the nascent conservative movement in the 1950s and 60s into a charming novel. Ayn Rand fans will be dismayed.

22. Who Walk Alone, Percy Burgess **: Burgess recounts the life of an American soldier who contracts leprosy while fighting in the Philippines during WWI. The reader of this book will learn a lot about the disease and what life was like for people who suffered from it.

23. Abraham Kuyper - God's Renaissance Man, James McGoldrick **: A straightforward biography of a fascinating character in the history of reformed Christianity. Kuyper was a pastor, a theologian, a parliamentarian and eventually the president of the Netherlands.

24. The Language of God, Francis Collins **: Collins was the scientist who headed the team which elucidated the sequence of nucleotides that comprise the human genome. In the book he talks about his journey from atheism to faith and also lays out his blueprint for harmonizing faith and science.

25. Why the Universe Is the Way it Is, Hugh Ross ***: The first part of this book relates some astonishing facts about the fine-tuning of the universe. The second part is more theological and speculative.


Re; Personal Generosity

In a recent post titled Personal Generosity, we discussed a NYT op-ed in which Nicholas Kristoff wrote about studies by Arthur Brooks which reveal that conservatives are much more generous than liberals. Kristoff quoted a remark made by a critic of Brooks' findings to the effect that it may be true that conservatives give more than do liberals but that most conservatives are religious and their giving goes to build church buildings and not to help people. The comment demonstrated a complete unfamiliarity with what churches do, and a reader named Andrew writes to illustrate why the remark belies an unfortunate ignorance on the part of the critic who made it:

I go to a "mega church" here in Lancaster. I've grown up there actually. My family has been attending since there were only 200 members. Anyway, I've often wondered myself why we spend so much on the building, or flat screens for the youth rooms, or the light systems for the services. I used to wonder... wouldn't that money be better spent helping someone needy?

[But] this year members at my church supported over 2200 children in an area of Kenya called Securu. Our 5th and 6th graders raised $165,000 for a charity called Hoops of Hope to go to that same area of Africa to drill deep bore hole wells. Earlier this year we raised around $30,000 to open a few rehabilitation clinics in Vietnam for a vet who attends our church. Our members prepared over 2500 shoeboxes full of essentials to send away to children in need and bought hundreds of presents for needy families in our own area. These are just the things I can remember, and all this on top of the other ministries we run and the time we volunteer.

Yes, maybe some of the money conservatives give goes to build big fancy churches, [but] better a big building where people come to care, and serve, and give than an empty art museum.

In other words, the money that's spent by Andrew's church on physical structure is an investment that ultimately empowers them to do more to meet human need around the globe. Meanwhile, as Kristoff pointed out, much of what secular liberals donate goes to fund art museums, theaters, concert halls, and museums - nice things to have in one's community, to be sure, but hardly institutions likely to do much to help the poor and downtrodden. Indeed, this sort of "charitable giving" is simply a means for the well-off to make their own comfortable lives even more enjoyable.


Ken Miller's Straw Man

I don't know how many of our readers are really into biology, especially as it relates to the Intelligent Design/ Darwinism debate, but if you are there's a must read on the subject by Casey Luskin at Evolution News and Notes.

Biochemist Michael Behe made an argument in his book Darwin's Black Box that a portion of the human blood clotting cascade was irreducibly complex. Biologist Kenneth Miller claims to have refuted Behe's argument to the satisfaction of presiding judge John Jones at the Kitzmiller trial two years ago. Now it's true that Miller satisfied Jones, who was eager to be satisfied by the plaintiffs, but it's not true that he refuted Behe, and Luskin explains why.

This is important because Miller and others are going around the country claiming that Behe has been refuted, and thus ID has been discredited, when in fact neither he, nor it, has been. As Luskin points out, Miller did not address Behe's argument at all, but rather mischaracterized it and then critiqued the mischaracterization. This is called a straw man argument, and Miller's skill in the use of it does him no credit.